AWI lottery gamble produces modest payoff State officials remain optimistic after opening glitches

August 20, 1996|By Marina Sarris and Lisa Respers | Marina Sarris and Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Mike Farabaugh contributed to this article.

Some lottery terminals across Maryland refused to sell tickets, read play slips or validate winners yesterday as a new contractor took over running the state's $1 billion-a-year lottery business.

But upbeat lottery officials said that only 200 of the almost 3,800 terminals statewide were out of service as of 4 p.m., and they said they were satisfied with Automated Wagering International's first day on the job.

"These are normal glitches in a start-up," said acting lottery director William W. Saltzman. "We are truly pleased the start-up appears to be a success."

Said lottery spokesman Carroll H. Hynson Jr.: "Under the circumstances, I don't think this is bad at all."

A check of a dozen central Maryland lottery outlets found that a few terminals worked fine, but most were behaving erratically, frustrating players, angering store clerks and forcing the most determined gamblers to troop from store to store looking for a place to play.

To Mo and Faty Bouhmad, owners of Taki's Restaurant and Carry Out in Fells Point, their broken lottery terminal meant lost business.

The machine was not working when they opened at 8 a.m. Seven hours and many distraught customers later, a technician came to fix it. "We've lost a lot of customers," Mo Bouhmad said. "They come in, find out the machine's not working and then they leave."

"Almost everybody's having problems, I heard," said Faty Bouhmad. "As with anything new, there are a few problems in the beginning. Hopefully, tomorrow should be better."

The glitches largely were to be expected for the first day of operation of a new, complex lottery computer system, state lottery officials said.

Some state officials had braced for far worse. AWI was fired by the Arizona Lottery in May for poor performance after a similar computer system failed to work adequately. There, software glitches paralyzed the entire computer system for hours at a time on some occasions, something that did not appear to be happening in Maryland yesterday.

The Atlanta-based AWI was anxious to prove its mettle after Arizona. "It's a great day for us," company president Mark L. Cushing said of yesterday's Maryland debut. He boasted that the system had fired up 10 minutes early, at 5: 20 a.m.

Ironically, he made his comments at a Baltimore saloon that happened to have a disabled lottery terminal. Because of a telephone line problem, the terminal at The Purple Goose Saloon on Washington Boulevard did not work until lunchtime -- after AWI's press conference there had ended.

Purple Goose manager Dennis Imbesi said the new system was working fine by evening. "It takes less time for the bartender to operate the machine," he said.

Some retailers and customers also complimented the more varied and interesting graphics used by AWI for its keno monitors.

Despite the problems, lottery sales did not appear to be dramatically down by mid-afternoon. During the first half day of operation, the lottery sold about $1 million in on-line tickets, almost half of what it usually sells on a Monday.

"Based on what we're currently seeing, there isn't any reason why we shouldn't have close to a typical Monday," Hynson said.

AWI won the Maryland contract after it promised to supply the HTC state's lottery computers and games for $53 million over five years, roughly half the price of GTECH Corp., the previous contractor.

AWI received 1,300 calls to its trouble-shooting hotline yesterday, which might have been busy at peak times, officials said. The lottery recorded 400, many from people who had misplaced a password they needed to activate their terminal.

The old GTECH hotline recorded 788 trouble calls yesterday, compared to 275 normally, said spokesman Stephen G. White.

Some people had to, well, work to play. Thomas Beasley of Randallstown said he had been to several stores where he encountered long, slow moving lines and disabled machines. So, he was not pleased by the time he got to the High's store in the 8000 block of Liberty Road.

"I heard they had problems with these things in Arizona," said Beasley. "I think [lottery officials] should get rid of them and send them back to Arizona."

The machine was down at the Edmondson Village store where Irene Huey usually buys her tickets, so she caught a ride to Charing Cross Discount Liquors on Route 40 in Catonsville. Although on a fixed income, Huey estimates she spends $50 to $60 a week on tickets.

"I'm just trying to hit, and I hope these new machines will be luckier than the other ones," she said as she waited patiently in the long line. "I was going to play my numbers one way or another."

At Jesse's Liquors at the corner of West Franklin Street and North Fremont Avenue, owner Jesse Dell was frustrated as well. "It's horrible," Dell said. "The state is going to lose a lot of money with these things."

The printer on the machine malfunctioned, he said. "It's all messed up, and you can't read the tickets," Dell said. "It's just not running right."

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